Antibiotics in the Environment

Updated: Aug 10


Right: The Haihe River, located in China, has been found to contain large traces of antibiotics within its river system due to the increased administration of such medicines to animals. (Photo: The World Bank)


In almost any field of veterinary medicine, the use of antibiotics is prevalent. From lincosamides, a group of antibiotics known to prevent protein synthesis, to glycopeptides, another group known for their ability to stop cell wall synthesis and eventually cause cell death, antibiotics are an important part of veterinary medicine. However, their impact outside of the clinic is one that is important to note as well. Many antibiotics, due to the increased rate in which they are administered to both human and animal patients, are now labeled as environmental pollutants. Traces of these medicines are commonly found in ground water, fresh water, and even our drinking water, contaminating ecosystems and wildlife at an increasingly fast rate (Bilal et. al). With such a reliance on them, it is critical that we, as researchers and doctors, address the impact antibiotics have on not only our animal patients, but also the world they live in.


Despite making profound advancements in medicine and ultimately helping to heal sick patients, antibiotics pose a unique question to environmental scientists, as they are so vitally important to the modern world of medicine. These chemotherapeutic agents of multiple shapes and sizes are extremely diverse and commonly addressed within three categories: natural, semisynthetic and synthetic (Bilal et. al). Outside of this grouping, we also find that antibiotics can be grouped through means of administration. Commonly used when treating an illness, administered antibiotics are only partially metabolized by the body, while the rest of the medicine is typically excreted via feces or urine (Bilal et. al). As a result, this waste finds its way into unregulated sewage systems and wastewater treatment plants and then into bodies of water. Much of the antibiotic residue we collect is produced this way, however there are also other methods of transportation of these harmful byproducts that tie back to the origin of the antibiotic itself. Antibiotic production is a threatening process to local environments, where the residues yet again find themselves in sewage systems unregulated and unfiltered, seeping into loam and other soils to contaminate the surrounding environment (Bilal et. al, 68). Despite the environmental issues we already face through industry advancement, antibiotic contamination continues to add to the list, causing some pre-existing problems to worsen.


Although antibiotic residue can be found in almost every section of the environment, from loam to surface water to terrestrial animals, the world’s search for contaminant-free drinking water has become even more difficult because of it (Bilal et. al). Antibiotics used in food animals such as poultry are being drained into drinking water and impacting populations around the world. In certain areas of Spain and China, traces of antibiotics such as erythromycin (a “motilin receptor agonist”) and ciprofloxacin (an antibiotic that inhibits bacterial DNA gyrase) as well as many others have been found in tap water accessible to residents of the area (Campoli-Richards et. al). When these antibiotics are ingested in unwanted quantities, the residues impact the thriving microbial populations in animals and may potentially cause an imbalance in population numbers (Bilal et. al). Without maintaining a healthy population of bacteria, the animal is subjected to opportunistic pathogens and may suffer from other conditions in the future.


But how does animal health impact the environment? When traces of antibiotics make their way into fresh water, ground water and other bodies of water available to wildlife, the fragile populations of wildlife already suffering from pollution, deforestation and other hazards then have their health jeopardized by the unregulated use of antibiotics in the medical community (Bilal et. al). Antibiotics that are left to be deposited into soil allow bacteria to develop antibiotic resistant genes that cannot be treated with the medicines that caused the problem in the first place, leaving ecosystems and food chains to suffer as population numbers are severely impacted (Bilal et. al). The solution is not as simple as improving sanitation though. Aquaculture, which refers to the raising of aquatic organisms under controlled or semi-controlled conditions, is a large contributor to the pollution of natural environments with veterinary medicines. A study of aquaculture farms in Vietnam revealed that the issued stemmed farther back than the administration of antibiotics to the animal populations; farmers recorded that they were actually unsure of not only the purpose of antibiotics but also their impacts (Pham et. al). The study proved that the issue of antibiotic resides polluting the natural environment is multi-faceted, yet all of the impacts link back to veterinary medicine.


As proactive members of the veterinary community, it is our obligation to care for our animal patients and the environment they live in. For some, this may be the typical household as an indoor pet, but for other patients such as those treated by wildlife veterinarians, the home environment may look very different. To decrease the impact that antibiotic residues are having on local environments, clinics, facilities and other buildings that house such veterinary medicines must improve the filtering and regulation of waste. Additionally, we must advocate that community wastewater systems become aware and active in battling the issue, as many of the patients in the veterinary community return home to other areas outside of a clinic. Lastly, as professionals dedicated to not only advocating for animal welfare but human welfare as well, it is our responsibility to help educate communities (especially those directly linked to veterinary medicine) about the importance of these issues. Local environments and water systems are essential to our everyday lives and the longevity of our careers; therefore we owe it to the Earth to do what we can to protect its resources and livelihood as well.


Works Cited:


“Antibiotics in Veterinary Medicine.” Antimicrobial Resistance Learning Site, amrls.umn.edu/antibiotics-veterinary-medicine.


Bilal, Muhammad, et al. “Antibiotics Traces in the Aquatic Environment: Persistence and Adverse Environmental Impact.” Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, vol. 13, 2020, pp. 68–74., doi:10.1016/j.coesh.2019.11.005.


Campoli-Richards, Deborah M., et al. “Ciprofloxacin.” Drugs, vol. 35, no. 4, 1988, pp. 373–447., doi:10.2165/00003495-198835040-00003.


“Hai River Basin Project.” Hai River Basin Project Gives Priority to Ecosystem’s Need for Water, The World Bank, 2015, www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/07/29/hai-river-basin-project-gives-priority-to-ecosystem-need-for-water.


Muhammad, Juma, et al. “Antibiotics in Poultry Manure and Their Associated Health Issues: a Systematic Review.” Journal of Soils and Sediments, vol. 20, no. 1, 2019, pp. 486–497., doi:10.1007/s11368-019-02360-0.


Pham, Dang Kim, et al. “Monitoring Antibiotic Use and Residue in Freshwater Aquaculture for Domestic Use in Vietnam.” EcoHealth, vol. 12, no. 3, 2015, pp. 480–489., doi:10.1007/s10393-014-1006-z.

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